India has one of the world's most diverse and complex migration histories. Since the 19th century, ethnic Indians have established communities on every continent as well as on islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific and Indian oceans.
The composition of flows has evolved over time from mainly indentured labor in far-flung colonies to postwar labor for British industry to high-skilled professionals in North America and low-skilled workers in the Middle East. In addition, ethnic Indians in countries like Kenya and Suriname have migrated to other countries, a movement called secondary migration.
This profile provides a broad overview of Indian migration flows and major populations worldwide, both in the past and more recently, as well as their remittances and contributions to India.
It then discusses India's policies toward its diaspora, India's own immigration policies, and immigration to India, including economic migrants from Nepal, refugees and asylum seekers from the region, and illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Emigration during Colonial Rule
Minor Migration Flows to Northern America and the United Kingdom
Post-Independence Migration to High-Wage Economies
The Indian Diaspora in Malaysia, Singapore, and Fiji
Indian Student Migration
Secondary Migration of the Indian Diaspora
Temporary Labor Migration to West Asia
The Full Picture: The Global Indian Diaspora
The Diaspora's Economic Contributions to the Homeland
The Indian IT Industry and the Diaspora
India's Diaspora Policies
Temporary Labor Migration Policies
Open Border with Nepal
Foreigners, Refugees, and Asylum Seekers
Refugee Policy Issues
Illegal Immigration from Bangladesh
Emigration during Colonial Rule
In ancient times, Indian traders established bases around the Indian and the Pacific oceans, especially in East Africa and Western and Southeast Asia. However, those flows were not the basis for Indian migration in the 19th century or the global dispersion seen today.
Rather, flows of the last 175 years began with the era of British colonial rule. The British had strategic portions of India under their control by the end of the 18th century and gained control over more territory in the 19th century.
Following the abolition of slavery, first by the British in 1833 and subsequently by other colonial powers such as France, the Netherlands, and Portugal, the colonies urgently needed manpower, particularly on sugar and rubber plantations. To meet this demand, the British established an organized system of temporary labor migration from the Indian subcontinent. On the labor-supply side of the equation, poverty among the South Asian peasantry accounted for the principal reason to leave the subcontinent.
In 1834, Britain began exporting Indian labor to Mauritius. The Netherlands and France, which replicated the British system, also relied on Indian workers. By 1878, Indians were working in Guyana, Trinidad, Natal (South Africa), Suriname, and Fiji.
Workers for plantations in Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, and Mauritius were mainly recruited in the present-day states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In Guyana and East Africa, laborers originated mainly from Punjab and Gujarat.
Given the proximity of Tamil Nadu to French possessions in India, the bulk of workers in most French colonies, such as Guadeloupe, Martinique, and La Reunion, as well as the majority of indentured laborers in Natal (South Africa) were Tamils.
Defining the Indian Diaspora
The term "Indian diaspora" refers to all persons of Indian descent living outside India, as long as they preserve some major Indian ethnocultural characteristics. Only nationals of Pakistan and Bangladesh are excluded from this term since those countries were part of the larger British India before 1947 and thus constitute a special case.
A common distinction with regard to ethnic Indians outside India, often referred to as overseas Indians, is made between non-resident Indians (NRIs), who hold Indian citizenship, and persons of Indian origin (PIOs), who do not.
This system remained in place for 80 years. Despite variations in the way the indenture system operated, some common characteristics can be discerned.
Laborers, mostly from rural areas, would initially sign up for a five-year contract. Many renewed their contracts, and a significant portion chose to stay permanently, deciding to accept a piece of land or a certain payment in lieu of their right to be shipped home.
Isolated from the rest of the local population, colonial rulers housed the workers in barracks and regulated their lives in almost every regard, with severe punishments for disobedience and "insufficient work." The poor living conditions and almost unlimited employer control led historian Hugh Tinker to label the system a "new form of slavery."
In response to severe criticism, the British Imperial Legislative Council abolished the indenture system in 1916. By that time, more than 1.5 million Indians had been shipped to colonies in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, according to estimates by the historian Brij V. Lal.
During roughly the same period, another form of labor migration was taking place. Tapping the labor surplus of South India, mostly in Tamil Nadu, the managers of tea, coffee, and rubber plantations in Sri Lanka, Malaya (part of present-day Malaysia), and Burma authorized Indian headmen, known as kangani or maistry, to recruit entire families and ship them to plantations.
Thus the system is commonly referred to as the kangani system for Sri Lanka and Malaya, and the maistry system for Burma. India, Malaya, and Sri Lanka played a role in this system by licensing the recruiters and partly by subsidizing transportation to the plantations. In Malaya, kangani migration took place in addition to the indentured labor system and mostly replaced it from 1900 onwards.
Indian workers in these three locations had close ties to India, partly because of the relatively short travel distance. Especially in Sri Lanka, however, the host society prevented any settling or mingling with the local Sinhalese. Compared to indentured laborers, the lives of kangani migrants were less regulated and provided the comfort of having moved with their families and village contacts.
Sociologist Chandrashekhar Bhat estimates that about 6 million people had left Indian shores when the system was abolished in 1938: about 1.5 million to Sri Lanka, 2 million to Malaya, and 2.5 million to Burma.
In addition to low-skilled workers, members of India's trading communities settled in many countries where indentured laborers had been brought or where business opportunities in the British Empire were promising. For example, Gujarati merchants became shop owners in East Africa, and traders from present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu provided rural credits for peasants in Burma, Ceylon, and Malaya or were involved in retail trade.
Minor Migration Flows to Northern America and the United Kingdom
Emigration to the United Kingdom and Northern America started during colonial rule in India. However, the number of emigrants was insignificant, both in relation to emigration from India, and to total immigration to those countries.
Between 1820 and 1900, no more than 700 persons moved from India to the United States. In the following 30 years, this number rose to a still insignificant 8,700; most were Punjabi Sikhs who worked in agriculture in California. Anti-Asian legislation in 1917 and 1924 banned immigration from south or southeast Asia, including India, and ensured that Asians would not qualify for naturalization or land ownership.
In 1904, there were about 100 Indians in Canada, also part of the British Empire at that time. This number rose by 5,000 in the following three years, before a restrictive immigration policy required whoever landed in Canada to make a continuous journey from the country of one's citizenship. Since no steamships traveled directly from India to Canada, Indian immigrants were intentionally excluded.
Table 1. Immigration of Indians to Selected Countries, 1995 to 2005
Note: Immigration data does not necessarily mean permanent immigration. Depending on the countries reporting system temporary workers may be included. All data are by nationality, not country of birth.
Sources: Eurostat; European Commission; OECD; and national statistical agencies.
Figure 1. Development of the Indian Community in the United States, 1960 to 2007
During the time of the British Raj, small-scale migration from the subcontinent to Britain consisted largely of educated Parsees and Bengalis. Between World War I and World War II, the number of Indians in Britain increased although the population remained small; estimates range from 5,000 to 8,000. Many worked in unskilled jobs for low wages.
The historian Rozina Visram states that from 1930 onwards, India restricted the issuance of passports in order to limit the migration of less-educated Indians to Britain. Unlike Indians of "good character and established position," the less-educated were required to have a definite employment offer in Britain and to prove they would be unlikely to become destitute.
Post-Independence Migration to High-Wage Economies
Until a decision by the Indian Supreme Court in 1966, the issuance of passports was considered a discretionary instrument of the Indian government to conduct its foreign relations.
|Indian Partition and Migration
Upon independence from British rule in 1947, British India was divided into predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan. The border was drawn through Punjab in the west and Bengal in the east.
This partition led to an enormous migration of people estimated at between 12 and 18 million that took place from 1947 to 1950. About half of the migrants (mainly Muslims) moved from India to Pakistan and half (mainly Hindus and Sikhs) moved in the opposite direction.
This two-way migration was accompanied by severe violence between caravans of migrants and in the respective source regions. Estimates of the death toll during this period range between 200,000 and 1 million.
During the war in East Pakistan, in 1971, which lead to the formation of Bangladesh, around 10 million refugees (80 percent of them Hindu) crossed the border into India of which an estimated 35,000 remained in India, mostly in West Bengal.
The Supreme Court established the "right to travel" as a fundamental right under the Indian constitution, following which the Indian parliament enacted the Passports Act of 1967. However, the act contains several provisions to refuse the issuance of a passport if the government thinks this would not be in "public interest."
In the first decades after independence, unskilled, skilled, and professional workers (mostly male Punjabi Sikhs) migrated from India to the United Kingdom. This is commonly attributed to Britain's postwar demand for low-skilled labor, postcolonial ties, and the United Kingdom's commonwealth immigration policy, which allowed any citizen of a Commonwealth country to live, work, vote, and hold public office in the United Kingdom.
Before the British Commonwealth Immigration Acts of 1962 and 1968, Indian nationals, as Commonwealth citizens, had an unrestricted right to enter the United Kingdom. Many settled in London as well as industrial cities like Leicester and Birmingham.
By the mid-1960s, most Indians coming to the United Kingdom were dependents according to government statistics; dependents made up 75 percent of all Indians entering in 1965 and 80 percent in 1966. Flows peaked in 1968, at just over 23,000. Between 1970 and 1996, an average of 5,800 Indian immigrants landed every year in the United Kingdom. Indian immigration sharply increased again between 1995 and 2005 (see Table 1).
Census data reveals that the India-born population in the United Kingdom tripled from 166,000 in 1961 to 470,000 in 2001. It has to be noted, however, that these numbers include white British born in India. Social geographers Ceri Peach and S.W.C. Winchester estimate the number of ethnic Indians in 1961 at 50,000. The ethnic Indian community as of 2007 stood at 1.3 million. In 2001, it counted 1 million members, with one-fifth born in South Africa or an East African country (see the section on secondary migration).
Being the only major European destination for Indians until the 1990s, the United Kingdom hosted about two-thirds of Europe's ethnic Indian population in 2001. As Table 1 shows, other countries in Western Europe, and increasingly in Eastern Europe, have also witnessed an influx of Indian migrants.
Between 1995 and 2005, half of the Europe-bound Indian immigrants headed to the United Kingdom. The other half opted for other EU countries, primarily Germany and Italy, which received 18 percent and 12 percent of the flows, respectively.
Flows into Belgium and Sweden have also slowly increased since the mid-1990s, and about 1,000 Indians come to France each year. However, the Indian community in France, about 65,000 people, is largely composed of ethnic Indians from Madagascar, the Seychelles, La Reunion, and Mauritius.
In many cases, the increased flow of Indians was triggered by European governments' attempts to tap India's highly skilled labor force. For example, Germany's temporary migration scheme, labeled "green card" and in place between 2000 and 2005, deliberately targeted Indian IT professionals. On the other hand, the Indian community in Italy consists largely of formerly illegal migrants, now being regularized. Most of the Indians in Italy are from Punjab and tend to work on dairy farms and in agriculture.
Substantial Indian migration to Northern America started only in the late 1960s. Both in the United States and Canada, major changes in immigration policy affected immigration flows generally, and Indian immigration specifically.
In the United States, the 1965 Immigration Act, which came fully into force in 1968, abolished national-origins quotas and made it possible for high-skilled immigrants, including Indians, to gain permanent residence and bring their family members.
The Immigration Act of 1990, effective from 1995, facilitated this process further by introducing the H-1B temporary worker category. This visa category allows US businesses to hire foreigners with at least a bachelor's degree in "specialty occupations" including scientists, engineers, and IT specialists. Indian citizens are by far the top recipients of H-1B visas each year.
H-1B visas, which are tied to a specific employer, are valid for three years and may be renewed for another three years. At that point the employer can decide to apply for lawful permanent residence for the H-1B visa holder.
According to the US Department of Homeland Security, from 1986 to 2005, the annual total influx of Indian immigrants more than tripled from 27,000 to 85,000, while the share in total immigration flows rose from 4.4 to 7.4 percent. Indian citizens accounted for 5.7 percent of all persons obtaining lawful permanent resident status in 2008.
Overall, the Indian foreign born are highly skilled: The US Census Bureau's 2008 American Community Survey found that 74.1 percent held at least a bachelor's degree, and 68.9 percent reported working in management, professional, and related occupations.
The total size of the Indian community meaning those born in India, the foreign born of Indian ethnicity (e.g., those born in Fiji or Trinidad), and the US-born children of Indian immigrants surpassed 2.5 million in 2007 (see Figure 1).
Temporary workers from India have received much attention, both from mainstream politics as well as research. Economist B. Lindsay Lowell observed that the number of Indian H-1B visa holders grew fivefold between 1989 and 1999 and peaked in 2001 with 160,000 issuances. In that year, 82 percent of all computer-related H-1B visas were given to Indians and 85 percent of all Indian H-1B beneficiaries were counted as computer related.
In 2007, India received one-third or 158,000 of all H-1B visas (including new visas and renewals). The second largest number went to Canadian citizens, accounting for 26,000 visas only.
India's domination of computer-trained temporary workers is mainly attributed to the large supply pool in India and to the fact that prior waves of Indian IT workers had successfully established a significant presence in that industry.
As in the United States, significant immigration flows of Indians to Canada were triggered by new immigration legislation that opened the door to high-skilled immigrants. In 1968, Canada introduced its points system, which assigns value to qualifications rather than a person's ethnic or national background.
By the 2006 census, Canada was home to 443,690 Indian foreign born, or 7.2 percent of all immigrants. The ethnic Indian community of 963,000 includes those born in Canada, as well as in East Africa, Guyana, Fiji, and Trinidad.
According to Statistics Canada, one-quarter of adult ethnic Indians were university graduates in 2001, better than the overall population. Also, 8 percent of all workers of Indian origin were employed in the natural and applied sciences compared with 6 percent of the total workforce.
However, 13 percent of the Indian labor force held manufacturing jobs, and the average income of Canadians of Indian origin was about 10 percent less than the corresponding national figure.
To be continued